On Charlie Chaplin

Henri Lefebvre

It is not Chaplin’s clowning contortions and funny faces that make people burst out laughing. From his very first films, he stood out from such other film comedians as Fatty Arbuckle and Harold Lloyd. The secret of his comic powers lies not in his body, but in the relation of this body to something else: a social relation with the material world and the social world. Naïve, physically adept but spiritually innocent, Chaplin arrives in a complicated and sophisticated universe of people and things with fixed patterns of behaviour (where people behave like things—and in conjunction with things). The clown’s physical suppleness, and his concomitant ability to adapt himself and his gestures with an almost animal rapidity, become humanized as they give way to an extreme awkwardness which both proves and signifies his naïvety. However, this awkwardness is never permanent; the original situation is reinstated; the clown has his revenge, he defeats the hostile objects—and the hostile people—only to fall back into momentary disarray. Hence visually comic moments when he cannot adapt are followed by moments of victory when he can, and this stops the ‘mime‑audience’ relationship from breaking down, producing fresh gusts of laughter and assuring that the humour never becomes awkward or embarrassing. Like pleasure, like harmony in music, laughter is stimulated by a series of resolved tensions, in which moments of relaxation are followed by even higher tensions.

The point of departure for the ‘vis comica’ peculiar to Chaplin is therefore the simplicity of a child, a primitive and a wonderfully gifted barbarian, suddenly plunged (as we all are at every moment) into an everyday life that is inflexible and bristling with ever‑new difficulties, some foreseeable, others not. In his first films Chaplin takes up battle—a duel which is always different and yet always the same—with objects, everyday objects: an umbrella, a deckchair, a motorbike, a banana skin ... Always surprised, always delighted by the strangeness and richness of things, always awkward when faced with ritualized practices (essential behaviour, necessary conditioning), Chaplin captures our own attitude towards these trivial things, and before our very eyes. He makes it appear suddenly amazing, dramatic and joyful. He comes as a stranger into the familiar world, he wends his way through it, not without wreaking joyful damage. Suddenly he disorientates us, but only to show us what we are when faced with objects; and these objects become suddenly alien, the familiar is no longer familiar (as for example when we arrive in a hotel room, or a furnished house, and trip over the furniture, and struggle to get the coffee grinder to work). But via this deviation through disorientation and strangeness, Chaplin reconciles us on a higher level, with ourselves, with things and with the humanized world of things.

Thus the essence of this humour is not to be found in pity, nor even in strangeness (alienation)) but on the contrary in a triumph which is forever being renewed and forever threatened. The dog, the pretty girl, the child, are not cinematic props, but elements necessary to the more or less complete final victory.

Therefore Chaplin’s first films may be seen as offering a critique of everyday life, a critique in action, a basically optimistic critique, with everyday life: a critique in action, a basically optimistic critique, with the living, human unity of its two faces, the negative and the positive. Hence its ‘success’.

In Chaplin’ feature films, the critique becomes broader, taking on a higher meaning. They confront the established (bourgeois) world and its vain attempts to complete itself and close itself off, not with another world but with a type. This type (a down‑and‑out) is the emanation of that other world, its expression, its internal necessity) its essence externalized and yet still internal (to put it abstractly and speculatively, which after all is how Marx expressed his discovery of the proletariat as a class).

As necessarily as it produces machines and men‑machines, the bourgeois world produces deviants. It produces the Tramp, its reverse image. The relation between the Tramp and the bourgeois order is different to the relation ‘proletariat­-bourgeoisie’. In particular it is more immediate, more physical, relying less on concepts and demands than on images.

By its false and illusory and euphoric and presumptuous insistence upon the self, the ‘free world’ immediately creates its pure negative image. Thus the Tramp­-figure contains certain characteristics of the image Marx presents of the proletariat in his philosophical writings: the pure alienation of man and the human which is revealed as being more deeply human than the things it negates—negativity forced by its essence to destroy the society to which at one and the same time it belongs and does not belong. And yet the ‘positivity’ of the proletariat, its historic mission, is not accomplished on the philosophical or aesthetic level; it is accomplished politically, and philosophical criticism becomes political criticism and action ... In the type and the 'myth' presented by Chaplin, criticism is not separable from the physical image immediately present on the screen. If therefore it remains limited, it is nevertheless directly accessible to the masses; it does not lead to revolutionary action or political consciousness, and yet it uses laughter to stir up the masses profoundly. Thus in his best films Chaplin's humour takes on an epic dimension which comes from this deep meaning. ‘The image of alienated man, he reveals alienation by dishonouring it.’

Here for the first time we encounter a complex problem, both aesthetic and ethical, that of the reverse image: an image of everyday reality, taken in its totality or as a fragment, reflecting that reality in all its depth through people, ideas and things which are apparently quite different from everyday experience, and therefore exceptional, deviant, abnormal.

The type created by Chaplin achieves universality by means of extremely precise elements: the hat, the walking stick and the trousers, all taken from London’s petty bourgeoisie. The transition from the mime to the Type marks a date and an expansion in Chaplin’s work, an expansion within the work itself and one made possible by that work alone; suddenly he puts his own previously constructed figure (or image) at the centre of his films. In a very strong sense, he puts himself on the stage; as a result, a new development takes place.

Thus the critique of everyday life takes the form of a living, dialectical pair: on the one hand, ‘modern times’ (with everything they entail: bourgeoisie, capitalism, techniques and technicity, etc.), and on the other, the Tramp. The relation between them is not a simple one. In a fiction truer than reality as it is immediately given, they go on producing and destroying one another ceaselessly. In this way the comical produces the tragic, the tragic destroys the comical, and vice versa; cruelty is never absent from the clowning; the setting for the clowning is constantly being broadened: the city, the factory, Fascism, capitalist society in its entirety. But is the comedy defined by its underlying tragedy, or by its victory over the tragic? It is in the spectator personally that Charlie Chaplin constantly manages to unite these two ever‑present and conflicting aspects, the tragic and the comical; laughter always manages to break through; and like the laughter of Rabelais, Swift and Molière (i.e. the laughter of their readers or audiences) it denies, destroys, liberates. Suffering itself is denied, and this denial is put on display. In this fictitious negation we reach the limits of art. On leaving the darkness of the cinema, we rediscover the same world as before, it closes round us again. And yet the comic event has taken place, and we feel decontaminated, returned to normality, purified somehow, and stronger.

To sum up, our analysis has seen Chaplin as a type rather than a myth, based on general characteristics (poor but full of vitality—weak but strong—ruthlessly seeking money, work, prestige, but also love and happiness). How can an image which so directly reveals what is significant about the so‑called ‘modern man’ be called mythical?

In any case the interesting thing here is not a discussion of the Chaplin ‘myth’ and the mythical character of the image of life he presents; it is the very fact that an image with its roots deep in everyday life can be seen as mythical and that the word ‘myth’ can be used to describe it.


SOURCE: Lefebvre, Henri. Critique of Everyday Life, Volume 1; translated by John Moore; with a preface by Michel Trebitsch (London; New York: Verso, 1991), pp. 10-13. Endnotes omitted.


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